Amerika: The Missing Person

Schocken Books  2008

Although The Trial and The Castle are likely the most widely known and read of Kafka’s novels, his first novel, Der Verschollene, to which his friend and literary executor, Max Brod, gave the title Amerika upon its publication in 1927, contains many of the seeds of Kafka’s later works. 

He began writing the novel, which translator Mark Harman correctly renders in this new edition as “The Missing Person,” in 1912 and wrote the last completed chapter in 1914; while it appears from his letters and diaries that he intended to return to this novel, he never did, and it was unfinished when he died. 

Much in the tradition of the picaresque and the Bildungsroman, or coming-of-age novel, Kafka’s book has family resemblances to Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Nathaniel West’s The Dream Life of Balso Snell, and Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. In Kafka’s story, young Karl Rossman is banished by his parents to America because of his dalliance with a housemaid. On the ship to New York, he becomes involved in an incident with the ship’s stoker that thrusts him into an unpleasant situation. Acting on behalf of what he believes is right, Rossman soon discovers that duplicity and injustice are the ways of the world. When he arrives in America, his lessons in the harshness and unfairness of life continue when he is wrongly accused of a number of misdeeds by his employer. The companions he meets along his journey betray him at every turn, and Karl soon learns, though he retains his optimism through these events, that injustice can be the dark side of the promise of America. In the final completed chapter, Karl begins his journey to Oklahama (as Kafka spelled it) for a life in the theater. 

Displacement is a major theme in Kafka’s work, and we find it here not only in Karl’s journey to America but also in the everyday events in his life; Karl is always being displaced by forces over which he has no control. Kafka’s persistent theme of the animalism of humanity—Gregor Samsa’s transformation into a giant bug in Metamorphosis is but one example—is evident in Karl’s surname, Rossman, which in German is “horse-man.” Mark Harman’s brilliant new translation, based on the restored text of the novel, captures splendidly Kafka’s sometimes difficult German and presents us with a novel that merits many re-readings.    

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